By Elizabeth Barratt, parish archivist/historian
Under the driving energy and guidance of Fr. David Hill, the Big Sur Mission became the third mission sponsored by All Saints’ Church after St. Matthias (1954) and St. Dunstan’s (1955). The first service was held on Easter Day, March 29, 1959, at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with the Rev. C.E. Wilson officiating.
Regular services began several months later, when on July 26, 1959, Holy Communion was celebrated at 9 AM at the Big Sur Grange Hall. The Rev. Harvey Buck officiated at the service, attended by fifteen individuals. By October 11, 1959, worship time was moved to 9:30 AM, which it remained for over a decade.
The mission’s original Register of Services, which covers the period July 1959 to July 1972, shows that the preponderance of services over those years were conducted by Fr. David Hill and Fr. Peter Farmer. Additionally, on many other occasions, assisting All Saints’ clergy held communion services. When clergy was not present, lay readers conducted Morning Prayer. Names, both clergy and layreaders, appearing in the register include: S.A. Grant, Harvey Buck, G.F. Campbell, W.L. Smith, J.S. Neill, J. T. Somerville, Lloyd Johnston, Raymond Smith, Jack Schaper, C.W. Cannon, Daniel Hood and B. Wood.
The newly arrived Fr. Peter Farmer was closely associated with the earliest years of the Big Sur Mission. His first Holy Communion service was offered at the Big Sur Grange Hall on August 30, 1959. Within three months, Fr. Farmer was a very busy man: by then he had become the new Vicar of St. Dunstan’s Mission in Carmel Valley. According to the October 3, 1959 Monterey Peninsula Herald, he was also appointed to head the All Saints’ newly established mission in Big Sur. How to handle the double job? The stated plan, on the third Sunday of the month, was to head down to Big Sur to hold Morning Prayer in the Grange Hall, and at such time, services would not be held at St. Dunstan’s.
By November 15, 1959, Fr. Farmer’s margin notes in the Register record that the mission had its first choir, consisting of four girls who sang for the Mass.
Five months later, on April 24, 1960 All Saints’ Parish made its milestone first annual pilgrimage to Big Sur, a tradition that has continued ever since. The occasion included a service at the Grange Hall, where Frs. Farmer and Hill celebrated the Eucharist.
Fr. Farmer officiated at the mission’s first wedding ceremony on September 12, 1960. The lucky couple, Robinson Jon Hill and Jane Durrie, chose Nepenthe for their wedding venue.
The following month, on October 9, 1960, he performed the mission’s first baptisms for four children of the Cooley family.
Newspaper accounts briefly linked Fr. Farmer’s name to two famous American families. On February 2, 1961 he performed the marriage ceremony uniting John Fell Stevenson, youngest son of onetime Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, to Natalie Owings, daughter of architect Nathaniel Owings. The wedding took place at “Wild Bird,” the spectacular A-frame designed Owings home, perched atop a Big Sur cliff with sweeping Pacific views.
After nearly two years of services at the Big Sur Grange Hall, acreage for the new mission campgrounds and chapel was purchased in 1961. The property was aptly named Santa Lucia in honor of the seaward sloping mountain range originally designated by Spanish navigators who plied the Big Sur seacoast centuries earlier.
The first official service at the Santa Lucia outdoor chapel by the river was held on April 9, 1961. It was a banner day: Fathers Farmer and Hill celebrated the Eucharist on the new site for the first time, Carol Ann Royin was baptized during the service, itself attended by an All Saints’ Parish pilgrimage and followed by another All Saints’ tradition, a picnic at the grounds. The event was well covered in the April 22, 1961 issue of the Monterey Peninsula Herald, which noted that, “Six acres of magnificently wooded property along the Big Sur River have been purchased by the parish to be used as a camp center, for retreats and conferences, and for the Santa Lucia Chapel.”
Services during 1961 were held sometimes at the Grange Hall, other times at the outdoor chapel. Fr. David Hill explained this in the same Herald article, noting, “The property will be kept in its naturally beautiful state, we do not plan to do any building other than a small storage shelter. The fact that we are able to use the Grange Hall for our Chapel during inclement weather makes it possible for us to keep this beautiful property as it is.”
Although Fr. Farmer was chosen to become the head of the new All Saints’ Day School in September 1961, he continued to conduct services frequently over the years at the Big Sur mission.
Over the next decade, as the grounds developed into a campsite, many locals, Big Sur visitors and Boy Scout troops who were camping elsewhere came to attend Sunday services at the charming chapel. On March 26, 1967, the Rev. C.E. Wilson officiated at the blessing of an organ and vestments for the site.
By 1971 service attendance had been dwindling, and the worship hour was changed to 10 AM, perhaps to attract more people. Average attendance, when taken over the years, was usually around 20 to 30 individuals on a given summer Sunday. During winter months the number sometimes dwindled to 4 or 5 souls. In September 1969 there were two occasions when attendance was recorded as zero. At the other end of the scale, a whopping 247 attended one service at the St. Lucia Chapel on May 8, 1966, when newsmaker Bishop James A. Pike officiated.
The final entry in the Service Record for the Big Sur Mission occurred on July 30, 1972. Layreader Raymond Smith conducted Morning Prayer, and recorded an attendance of 12 people.
Fr. David Hill’s dream, of a silent and beckoning spot “untouched by bulldozers and hamburger counters” still stands as a testament to the diligence of the early founders, who foresaw the serene appeal of the forested acreage. In Fr. Hill’s words, the grounds stand as “a silent witness to the beauty of God Creator and to our obligation to preserve His beauty for our children.”
Over all the years since, the wooded setting has continued to be a favored destination for church picnics, outdoor worship services, retreats, and of course, camping, under the towering redwoods alongside the rush and ripple of the nearby Big Sur River. No matter the season, the peaceful grounds offer a pilgrimage destination for anyone yearning to commune with God our Creator, in His natural environment.